Cuneiform Inscriptions

Darius the Great

Cuneiform Inscriptions

Old Babylonian Texts in the Schoyen Collection: Part One: Selected Letters by A.R. George, Pp. 328: xiii, 192 (221 plates), CDL Press 2018, $99.95

Literary Notes by Darrell Sutton

Two hundred years ago expeditions were the primary pathway to recovering antiquities because the rudimentary phase of the science of excavation persisted until the latter part of the 19thcentury. Explorers, foreign-service workers and missionaries supplied museums, university scholars and independent epigraphists with the raw material objects (i.e. inscriptions, sculptures, pottery) that were crucial to their material researches. At various times, curators and other individuals made the items available for study. The public took interest. Antiquarian pursuits intensified. George F. Grotefend’s (1775-1853) efforts to resolve the mysteries of Old Persian paved the way for studious men soon after to comprehend Assyrian and Babylonian script.

Because of Grotefend, King Darius was able to speak to future generations about the greatness of his reign through The Kerman Inscription, a tetra-angular pyramid of dark stone that has three inscriptions – each one etched on a different side: one in Persian, one in Elamitic and another in Babylonian.

Contemporary cuneiformists also owe a great debt to Edward Hincks (1792-1866), William H.F. Talbot (1800-1877), Henry C. Rawlinson (1810-1895) and Jules Oppert (1825-1905) for their labors in the decipherment of the writings of Mesopotamia. They made impenetrable worlds accessible and understandable.

Users of cuneiform’s wedge-shaped marks were once widespread. More light continues to be cast upon ancient Mesopotamia. Scholars are doing the detective work necessary to uncover details that were shrouded in secrecy for thousands of years. The number of participants in this field of study remains relatively small in comparison to the number of them conducting research in other disciplines of the humanities. There are less than fifteen first-rate journals or serial publications world-wide that focus wholly on issuing critical editions of cuneiform tablets. Photographs of tablets issued as diplomatic texts are numerous and foundational for exact analyses. Experts who are commissioned to publish results of their studies for scholars and students have equipped themselves for the arduous labors involved with the progress of their science.

Researchers who are tasked with contributing to the ongoing Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology (CUSAS) stand upon the broad shoulders of several historical figures of the past. And these same specialists form a small but erudite community of academics. The selected letters under review were edited by Dr. A.R. George (hence A.R.G.), Professor of Babylonian in the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). He has edited several other volumes in this series: namely Babylonian Literary Texts in the Schoyen Collection (2009), Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schoyen Collection (2011), Babylonian Divinatory Texts Chiefly in the Schoyen Collection (2013), Mesopotamian Incantations and Related Texts in the Schoyen Collection (2016), and A.R.G., et al., Assyrian Archival Texts in the Schoyen Collection and Other Documents from North Mesopotamia and Syria (2017). A.R.G.’s landmark production, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic: Introduction, Critical Edition and Cuneiform Texts, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2003), was a significant achievement, and it advanced the critical study of that Babylonian saga. Selections of his writings and a few transliterations are accessible at

The book itself comes in a beautiful red hardback with gold embossed titles on the cover and along the spine. Stout and heavy, the books dimensions are 8.5 x 1.2 x 11 inches. The Table of Contents is brief. There is a Statement of Provenance (; a Series Editor’s Preface (p.ix); a Preface and Acknowledgements (pp.x-xiii) by A.R.G. Abbreviations (p.xiv); Catalogue of Tablets (pp.1-6); Concordances (pp.7-10). 474 letters will be published. This volume is the first installment. It contains 221 of the corpus. The letters fall into five categories:

I.Correspondence of Sumu-El and Nūr-Adad, Kings of Larsa (Nos. 1–32) pp.11-36.
II. Other Early Old Babylonian Letters (Nos. 33–89) pp.37-77.
III. Letters of the Era from Rīm-Sîn I to Samsuiluna (Nos. 90–219) pp.78-178.
IV. A Late Old Babylonian Letter (No. 220), p. 179;
V. A Letter of the Sealand I Period (No. 221) p.180.

References pp.181-183 Indexes: Personal Names pp.184-190; Geographical and Tribal Names p.191-; Divine Names p.192; Photographs and Cuneiform Texts: Plates I–CCLXIII.

The paper stock is heavier than a normal page and of a polished white tint. The pages are easy to read. Navigating the material poses little difficulty. As for the page layout, an explanatory title is appended to each letter. Below it, an unpunctuated transliterated text is supplied in vertical lines. Sequential numbers are prefixed to the beginning of each line. A translation of each letter, with punctuation, follows each letter. The rendering is arranged horizontally in paragraph format.

The volume serves as a corrective to the many unusual ideas bandied-about in the blogosphere and in private/public email groups regarding ancient Babylonian texts and times. Things are changing for the better. Unlike in ancient Greek and Latin arenas, where editors work with copies of copies, it is not uncommon for Assyriologists to handle the original text-tablets. Proportional benefits can be had mutually. In the mid to late nineteenth century, archaeologists who dug in the Fertile Crescent once did so with Bibles in-hand as they sought to confirm or deny the verity of biblical descriptions.

As a consequence, the initial ascent of Assyriology was propelled, both by a love of controlled studies and by scriptural concerns. The balance became ever harder to maintain. Long ago, Assyriology and Hebraic [Old Testament] studies parted ways, with the former documents being accepted by Semitists as historically accurate, while the latter accounts were reckoned to be dubious. That attitude is shared by many Orientalists; but publishers, whose aims differ considerably from those of critical scholars, still find themselves in the precarious position of needing to promote positive aspects of Assyriology for Bible students and for revenue.

LETTERS. The correspondence is dated to early Old and middle Old Babylonian (p.x). Good enough, given that Babylonian chronologies before the Third Dynasty of Ur are not so certain. Examinations of ancient letters always prove to be helpful. Characters and events are unveiled. The letters can explain a motive behind diplomacy: they reveal administrative matters, and indeed the names of the personages involved international relations (e.g., the Amarna tablets). Akin to the uses made by historians who study The Oxyrhynchus Papyri – texts from a much later time period -, these cuneiform letters serve historical purposes, referring to dates, times and episodes that may or may not be confirmable in other documents. And when the letters are read closely, a writer’s literary style can be analyzed for comparative benefit. Students with inclinations to hunt up biographical facts must look elsewhere.

TRANSLATIONS. Undeniably the most important facet of the publicizing of Assyriological researches is the translation of cuneiform writings. And the use of a good translation is just compensation for the inability to grasp the meanings of the source-texts. Recondite expressions require editors who are equally competent in their role as translators. Since a translation must be judged against the primary text and/or as a stand-alone interpretation, it is more than a mirror-text reflecting the original passage. It is a window that permits readers to scrutinize a descriptively different world. At #130, ‘Regarding Stolen Sheep’, A.R.G. has this rendering:

To Keš-rīmum speak, thus Imlik-Sin:

Yesterday I caught the thieves who stole the palace’s sheep, and you didn’t help me or take any notice of me. At the moment I have the stolen sheep in my possession. [I] have sent a sealed tablet to the king. Get involved in the matter. Six sheep from the previous flock and twenty-four from the later flock have been stolen from inside your town.

There is nothing pretentious in the above rendering. It is reflective of the matter-of-fact way of description utilized by A.R.G in the other letters. The moral tone of the letter is apparent. Thievery attracts suspicion and prompts the apprehension and restraint of the burglar. Going out of his way to involve himself in someone’s loss of property, he recovered the goods. The writer feels his good deed was overlooked. He is well aware that this is not the first time the theft has occurred. Stealing was disdained.

PLATES. The images are fairly clear. The overhead lamp shining down on the plates provides sufficient shadow in the wedges to be able to discern each character. A few of the side-angle camera shots give vague impressions. Still, they are adequate if one’s objectives are paleographic. The ancient writers sometimes used instruments to create the straight lines that guided their placement of symbols. This method certainly made ideograms legible. On most of these tablets the literary lines slant downward to the left – some of them are seemingly straight from edge to edge: see e.g., #123. Unbaked tablets are included in the corpus; but numerous ones are fractured. Sifting through the mass of extant clay tablets to unite disjointed pieces surely was time-consuming. At each appropriate join the etchings form complete images. There is one drawback to the collection: the canvas on which the tablets were placed for duplication appears to be the same color as the tablets, and it is a color that obscures their periphery features. With black and white reproductions, a slightly darker hue would meet the requirements necessary for learned inspection.

Volume 36 is advertised as useful for biblical studies. Is this a necessary correlation to make? The link between Assyriology and the Bible was much more pronounced seventy five years ago than it is today (see M.W. Chavalas, ‘Assyriology and Biblical Studies: A Century and a Half of Tension’, in edd., M. W. Chavalas and K.L. Younger, Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations [2003], pp.21-67).

Accordingly, E. Schrader’s The Cuneiform Inscriptions and the Old Testament, 2 vols.,(1885-1888), L.W. King, Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition (1918) and A. Heidel’s TheGilgamesh and Old Testament Parallels (1949), are volumes whose titles were indicative of the constant need to associate the one with the other.

In his paper ‘Coincidences of Hebrew and Cuneiform Literature’, Joseph Offord echoed widely believed sentiments when he stated that

“The increasing accuracy with which the cuneiform inscribed literature of Babylonia and Assyria is being translated permits the versions of their numerous texts as now edited by specialists to be confidently utilized for purposes of comparison with the writings of their neighbors, the Jews, a people of such supreme interest to us”: see The Palestinian Exploration Quarterly (1914), p.140.

Connections between Assyriology and the Bible should not be discounted; but neither should the Hebrew Scriptures play second fiddle in historical importance to cuneiform tablets. One knows much more today about Mesopotamia than was known fifty years ago. Academic understanding of most aspects of literature in cuneiform script is firmly based, but it is not equal to the contemporary grasp of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew grammar and literatures. Progress, however, continues apace.

Persepolis, The Persian Soldiers

USES FOR BIBLICAL STUDIES. Students of Patriarchal narratives in the Bible can learn from these published texts. Whether an astute reader accepts an early date (c.2100BC) or a later one (c.1700BC) for the period in which Abraham’s clan dwelt in the Fertile Crescent, several facets of their modes of living are clarified by A.R.G.’s edition. For instance, on ‘Agricultural’: #103, #195, #212: the use of seed-corn, ploughs, manpower and animal technology in land management is illustrated profusely. This data is useful for understanding biblical contexts (e.g., Gen. 26:12) where ‘Isaac sowed in the land’; ‘Domestical’: #30, #208: employment as a household servant has its origins in ancient times. Where/when it appears first in time no one knows, but [un]indentured roles are confirmed in the tablets; ‘Economical’/‘Industrial’: #39, #50, #121: tablets on construction and textile commerce highlight materials used, and highlight the prices of materials extant at the time. Moreover, the manner in which one bartered for yarns, and other fabrics, that were used in weaving can be gleaned from the texts; ‘Juridical’/’Oath-taking’: #35, #214: the choice of legal recourse could be had by anyone in societies where tribal hierarchy existed. Appealing to a chieftain with power could resolve knotty issues (Gen. 21:23-31); ‘Military Strategy’: #24-28, #106, #206: leaders were paranoid about maintaining their fortifications. Forts and military equipment were of utmost importance in a world where enemy invasion could not be withstood apart from walled structures and mighty men. Where are the women warriors?; Numinous elements: #189 includes a formal belief in the interpretation of dreams. Evidently, the dream-interpreter was esteemed for his ability in prognostication. This note in the letter calls to mind the Babylonian oracular tablets once used by diviners for dream interpretation;  ‘Slavery’: #38, #175, and #194: whatever the literary skill of Hagar, an Egyptian slave to Sarah (Gen. 16:1), or of the slaves raised in Abraham’s house (Gen. 14:14), it is apparent from the aforementioned texts that some who were forcibly enslaved were able to  read and write; ‘Theological’: #176, 179, and the final line of 221: it is held by some that the polytheistic gods of Mesopotamia, when embraced as one’s personal deity, became protector-gods to all who submitted to them. It is believed nowadays that their powers were restricted to select geographical locations. Nonetheless, even if it was believed that their might was greater in a particular territory, nothing in ancient Mesopotamian polytheism precluded devotees from assuming that a god’s power still could be effectual upon them, positively or negatively, when they had moved outside the original sphere of a first encounter with that deity. Hence the report of Abraham’s continued faith in Jehovah upon his departure from Ur toward Harran and into Canaanite held lands. One branch of the military had some sort of an oracle assigned to the troops: see #106. And the issuance of a declaration for deity to bless the reader and preserve him or her is ubiquitous in the initial and final lines of the letters.

Excursus. Divinity students who do not know cuneiform will need translations to be able to form secondary, albeit, independent judgments. An example of how resultant literature on cuneiform can be used critically is visible in Herman Gunkel’s commentary Genesis (3rded. 1910). It remains a classic treatise of sober, well-reasoned, heterodox opinion. Since researches into cuneiform texts require extensive study, and seeing that fewer people will acquire the obligatory skill to comprehend the texts from which A.R.G. translates, much more guidance will be needed for interested readers. So I recommend derivative studies, like the Society of Biblical Literature’s series, Writings From The Ancient World or the popular pieces in TheNIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (2016), edd., John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener. The former contains a treasure trove of wide-ranging translations from ancient languages. Of the latter, the notes will have no damaging effect upon readers over the long term. To be sure the quality of each remark varies. And as for the above points on ‘Uses for Biblical Studies’, every annotation in that study bible’s Genesis is not relevant to understanding the specific customs of the Patriarchs, but the cultural milieu of various civilizations from Sumer down to the Roman Empire is expounded clearly and carefully; and the editors did a good job of intermingling critical arguments with faith-based conclusions.

QUESTIONS. In reference to the first twenty-one letters, rubbu sikkātim is defined by A.R.G. as the plural for ‘chief of the lock-pins’ (p.11). Does not the interpretation ‘heads of security’ contain some ambiguity, seeing that the individuals concerned were in a literal sense ‘gatekeepers’ charged with managing access to the city (town), thereby preserving it against enemies? Thereafter aputum[syn. ka-bā-tum] is glossed with an exclamation mark as ‘important!’. The term certainly stresses the relevance of what is to follow; but the gist of the cuneiform requires further elucidation so that it may stand as a term of emphasis. As an expansive translation of a single word and for smoother English, could we not construe it in this way? – ‘This matter requires your attention’ or ‘beware’, and if one prefers old English verbiage, ‘take heed’ is better. What’s more, at #21, is not the label “Lilith maiden” too burdened by historical misinterpretations to be a good translation of the cuneiform there?

Furthermore, it must be possible for publishers of this series to position select cuneiform lines (i.e., the line drawings) with facing translation on the same page, supplying all the notes at bottom of page (or in the margins) as is done so often in critical editions of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit. Stephen Langdon’s (1876-1937) Sumerian and Babylonian Psalms (1909) and The Epic of Gilgamesh (1917) – with transliteration facing translation – may be taken as models. As is well known, Langdon’s theory on a Sumerian monotheism received due criticism, and his translations in The Sumerian Epic of Paradise, the Flood and the Fall of Man(1915), excited disagreement.[i]

A.R.G. has given readers a superlative resource, one whose value for Divines will be appreciated best by those students who take the necessary time needed to compare and contrast the habits of mind of biblical and non-biblical events and characters.

Sumerian Literary and Historical Inscriptionsby W. W. Hallo with the assistance of H. T. Vedeler. Edd., M. E. Cohen and U. Kasten. Pp. i-xxiv; Plates I-CII. New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2018. $135.00.

These remarks will serve as a brief notice for Babylonian Texts volume XXII of the Yale Oriental Series. William Hallo (1928-2015) was the Laffan Professor Emeritus of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature and Curator of the Cuneiform collection at Yale. He was an assiduous commentator. His labours on Sumerian texts are rivalled only by the efforts of Arno Poebel (1881-1958), C.J. Gadd (1893-1969), S. N. Kramer (1897-1990) and those of Åke W. Sjöberg (1924-2014), to name a few. Originally labeled “Akkadian”, i.e., until Oppert suggested its current ascription, Sumerian is believed to have been the lingua franca (somewhat like Latin) in Mesopotamia 5 millennia ago. By 2000BC use of the language had declined. The discovery of non-Semitic inscriptions in Babylonia produced new arguments [cf. Rawlinson, ‘Notes on the Early History of Babylonia’ in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1855) 15].

The recovery of Sumerian in mid-19thcentury provoked much controversy. A few learned men did not believe Sumerian was an actual language. Scholarly debates between opponents and proponents filled periodicals. Sumerologists won the day, so the lineal descent of Sumerian experts has continued. This publication is another consequence of the intensive efforts of Sumerian scholars to bring further illumination to their specialty. It is a sort of ‘companion’ (p.xi) book to Hallo’s collection of papers entitled The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles-Lettres (2009). Because of the Narmer Palette’s antiquity (c.3150BC), Egyptologists who believe writing emerged in Egypt no later than 3200BC, will not agree altogether with what Hallo’s title insinuates, nor will they hold with an earlier suggestion made by Kramer that history began at Sumer. A few Egyptologists, however, might agree with Hallo’s bold statement that Mesopotamia and Egypt represent ‘the first half of history’. Both civilizations preserved for the world documents written in cuneiform script.

The Yale Oriental Series is a distinguished serialized publication. Emphasis therein is placed on the autographed texts. It is not unusual in this series for an editor to provide an introductory essay or survey about the included texts. This volume lacks one. A slim hardback published with black covers, it contains line drawings of Royal Hymns, Hymns to Deities, Letter Prayers, Correspondence, Lamentations, Other Emesal Compositions, Other Literary Compositions and Inscriptions. The Contents embrace ACKNOWLEDGMENTS p.vii; FOREWORD by B. R. Foster p.ix; INTRODUCTION by W.W. Hallo p.xi; CATLOGUE p.xiii; CONCORDANCES pp.xxiii-xxiv; AUTOGRAPHED TEXTS Plates I-CII.

The ‘Introduction’ is essentially the same as the prefatory remarks in Hallo 2009. The gestation period for this project was long, extending years. Nearly a decade passed between the publication of his collected essays and this collection of plates. The meanings of the inscriptions in Sumerian Literary and Historical Inscriptionsare accessible solely to the skilled cuneiformist (and determined enthusiast) who desires to translate and annotate cuneiform for his or her private or public uses. This edition commends itself with its very clear ink drawings, which are much easier to read than the ones in the Schoyen collection referred to above. Besides Hallo’s, several other copyists’ penciled drawings are taken in. Images on obverse and reverse sides are lucid. On some pages the ink is lighter or darker than other drawings: e.g., see plate LXVIII and LXIX.

For an illustration of how these new inscriptions supplement Hallo (2009), see his insightful essay ‘The Coronation of Ur-Nammu’. The article’s textual basis, Yale Babylonian text (YBC 4617), appears in the volume under review as Plate I-II, with obverse and reverse images, and is titled ‘The Coronation of Ur-Namma’ (p.xiii). A footnote about YBC 4617 in Hallo 2009 (p.187,fn.3) states, ‘provenience unknown, but the orthography is strictly “Nippurian”’. Brief notes like that one would have been helpful beneath each plate. Hallo’s essay provides a remarkable commentary on the Ur-Nammu hymn in its Ur version (UET VI/ı:76f.) when compared to the Yale text. There is an Appendix (ibid.,p.198) presenting a transliteration (with variants) and a translation of YBC 4617. And it would have been helpful to have specific Plates cross-referenced to other articles in Hallo (2009).

The collection is a capstone to the decades-long efforts of Hallo to advance Sumerian scholarship, a man whom B.R. Foster described in the Foreword as a “singularly productive” scholar (p.ix). More proof of that credit can be found in one of Hallo’s obituaries, also written by Foster, in Archiv für Orientforschung, 53 (2015), 497-499. The critical editions above are noted achievements for scientific scholarship. Cuneiformists should be delighted. The editors are to be commended for bringing these collections to fruition.


  1. Langdon was prolific, if not creative. An excellent epigraphist and a leading Sumerologist of his day, not all of his work is redundant. Langdon’s historical notes related to Old Testament narratives and his detailed investigations of syntax were not without merit. His extended reviews of Assyriological scholarship were of exceptional quality, as were his popular articles on Mesopotamian texts; but they must be appraised critically. He attended Union Theological Seminary, did graduate studies at Columbia with further researches in France. Although he studied briefly in Leipzig, as did one of his mentors, James A. Craig (1855-1932, PH.D 1886 under Delitzsch), Langdon persevered in the philological views and methods of his French professors whose interpretative positions often diverged from the ones of German academics, the latter of which, in the main, developed theories that garnered a more authoritative consensus.


Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, QR Home and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.